Thursday, August 18, 2011

Flying Wild Alaska

If seeing a birds eye view of Alaska was on my bucket list, it would have been checked off today! We climbed aboard a Cessna 208B Caravan this morning in Nome and spent the day hopping from one landing strip to another. We started with a low altitude flyover of Council. It was great to see from the air what we saw yesterday on the ground. There is no doubt about it, this area is both ecologically diverse and is undergoing considerable change.

We landed at Kougarok, flew over Espenberg, and landed again in Kotzebue for fuel. Larry has worked at Kougarok before and we spent about an hour checking out the polygonal landscape, trying to identify various forbs and shrubs, and probing the permafrost for near-surface temperature. We then departed for a quick flyover of the large thermokarst feature near Seliwik. Joel Rowland and Cathy Wilson, both participants in the NGEE project, have studied this feature along the Seliwik River for several years.

The Brooks Range was the only geographic obstacle between us and the North Slope, and our destinations of Ivotuk, Atqasuk, and Barrow. We landed at Ivotuk to take a quick look at the CALM grid and Walt Oechel's environmental monitoring tower. The CALM site is one of a network of locations where the depth of the active layer and permafrost temperatures are being monitored. A sign at the landing strip indicated "Welcome to Ivotuk, When you're here, you're still nowhere". It was easy to get that feeling today.

It was an awesome day! Few people get to see the diversity of ecosystems that we did today. Having seen all this compressed into a 14-hour period made the bioclimatic transitions from the Seward Peninsula to the North Slope seem obvious and highly relevant to the NGEE project. I walked the tundra at Kougaruk with Margaret Torn, an ecologist, and we commented on the biological complexity of the landscapes. We speculated that this complexity could be categorized into two broad classes; overwhelming and daunting. I think we saw both in our trip today and we are looking forward to seeing more in Barrow over the next few days!

Finally a special thanks to our Era Aviation pilots Ross and Tony. It was an outstanding flight and those landings were smooth...